An Interview with Tim Keown
Position: Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
Born: 1964, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Education: UC Berkeley (1982-84), graduated Washington State University (1986, Communications)
Career: Yuba-Sutter Appeal-Democrat (1986-88), Sacramento Union (1988-1989), Sacramento Bee (1989-1991), San Francisco Chronicle (1991-1999), ESPN The Magazine (1999-present)
Personal: Married, four sons
Favorite restaurant (home): 1. Norman Rose Tavern, Napa, Ca. – “great food, casual, the ballgame’s on behind the bar and you don’t have to mortgage the house to feed four large sons.” 1a. Nopa, San Francisco.
Favorite restaurant (away): The Purple Pig, Chicago, “one of the rare places worth the ridiculous wait. Order the skate wing.”
Favorite hotel: The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas. “ridiculous people-watching, crazy rooms – almost enough to make Vegas palatable.”
Q. Two major elements to “After the NFL”: Steve Hendrickson and your family. Why?
A. The explanation might take a while. The conversation for this story started two years ago, when Seth Wickersham – a very smart and excellent writer for The Magazine – and I sat in the press box in Houston watching the Steelers and Texans. I had flown to Houston on a redeye the night before after watching one of my son’s high school games, and Seth remarked on how unusual it is to find someone with four sons who all played football. We talked about the growing concerns of concussions and injuries and the future of the game. “You should write ‘Confessions of a Football Dad,’” he said.
I knew it could be a good story, and Bruce Kelley – a very smart and excellent editor at The Magazine – took up the cause. I was hesitant to write solely about my sons, though, because I thought it might come across as either too self-centered or too precious. So when I saw a story in the Napa Valley Register in the summer of 2012 about Steve Hendrickson and his post-football issues, I knew I’d found a way to incorporate all of these disparate elements into a story that might do more than recite head-trauma statistics or tell yet another sad tale about a former player who’s down on his luck. Steve is a legend in Napa – for nearly 30 years his jersey was the only one retired at Napa High – and he is remarkably honest about what the game did to him. He is also uniquely situated to tell the story of the evolution of the concussion issue; his job, quite literally, was to run full-speed and ram his head into other large, fast, strong humans. By definition, as a point-of-attack fullback/linebacker and wedge-busting special-teamer, there was absolutely no room for finesse in his game. His career depended on his ability to play through concussions.
Q. What were your considerations in writing about your family?
A. It needed to be in context, and it needed to speak to as many people as possible – parents, coaches, even kids themselves. My experience as the father of four good high school athletes has given me a unique look at the world of high school sports and youth sports in general. I’ve written about it before – the industry of youth baseball raises my blood pressure like no other – but never quite this personally. I know as a reader how often I’ve rolled my eyes when a writer decides to sell me on the wondrous qualities of his kids. That wasn’t what this was about. I wanted to fold the story of my sons into the larger story of parents trying to make the decision on whether to let their sons play football.
Q. Your voice, imo, finds a delicate balance in this story. How would you describe that balance and how did you find it?
A. Balance has been missing from this conversation. If I could summarize the two sides, I’d say the anti-football side says, “This is barbaric, outlaw it,” while the pro-football side scoffs at the evidence and cites “the wussification of America.” It’s kind of unhealthy that way. I was a pretty good player in high school who didn’t love it enough to keep playing, and I can see the arguments on both sides.
But I think one element has been missing from the conversation: the benefits that come with being challenged in a tough game. I know all the arguments against football, but I also know it was, overall, a valuable experience. (And this comes from someone who had an absolute tyrant as a coach my first three years in high school.) I haven’t read enough of that, so I decided to write it. Some of what’s happening out there is comical. The scene in the parents’ section of a high school game has changed completely over the past five years. There’s just so much hysteria now. During one junior varsity game, the quarterback kept on an option play to the home side of the field. As he turned the corner with nothing but open field in front of him, his mother screamed, “Be careful!” loud enough that the players on the sideline turned around.
Q. “Grand Reconsideration” – nice turn of phrase but ominous. Football is a revenue source for ESPN – what are your thoughts about biting the hand?
A. It never occurred to me, and it was never mentioned to me at any point. Regardless of how you phrase it, there’s no denying that football is undergoing a vast, system-wide reconsideration. It’s happening, and in my 15 years at ESPN I’ve never seen us shy away from addressing the real and difficult subjects of sports.
Q. You wrote about a Friday Night Lights side of Napa that tourists do not know. What else do townies know that tourists should?
A. Nothing. The tourists know everything they need to know. They should always stay on Highway 29, bumper to bumper through the Valley, leaving Silverado Trail for the rest of us.
But if they want to be as cool as the locals are, they should get the chili verde burrito from the taco truck parked behind the gas station on Salvador.
Q. What was it like to write an autobiography with Dennis Rodman?
I was a stranger in a strange land. At the time – and this was 17 years ago – I was amazed that someone could live minute-to-minute the way he did. We’d be driving down the street in Orange County. He would see a fitness center at the next intersection and decide to go in and work out. There was no schedule, no plan, just living in the moment. In order to write the book – and it’s worth noting that we had 2.5 months from start to finish to produce it – I had to immerse myself in his life. I couldn’t say, “Hey, Dennis, from 1 to 3 p.m. on Tuesday we’re going to cover the first eight years of your life.” It simply didn’t work that way.
Q. Your thoughts on Rodman’s self-proclaimed candidacy for the Nobel Peace Prize?
A. I really have none, but I would love to see the acceptance speech. Could you imagine? I’d probably pay to watch a continuous crowd shot of all the geniuses and world leaders as Rodman takes to the podium.
Q. What sports media do you consume and why?
A. Unfortunately, I’m an omnivore. I need to be more discriminating because I waste a lot of time on unimportant stuff.
Q. Give us a recent story that caught your attention and why?
A. I loved Wright Thompson’s piece in The Magazine’s Body Issue on the world’s most badass bull. It was funny and illuminating and unexpected – all great things. He anthropomorphized the bull in a way that I thought was genius. I’m not a bull, but the thoughts he ascribed to Bushwhacker seemed perfectly plausible to me. I also thought the recent New Yorker piece on the Steubenville rape case was tremendous.
Q. Who were your creative and journalistic influences?
A. The Sisters of the Holy Faith at St. Apollinaris in Napa ingrained a love – and a fear – of language in me. They were Olympic-level grammarians, as was my mom, and the combination created an obsessive attention to detail. I grew up as the youngest – by far – of four kids, and I was an old man by eight or nine years old. I listened to talk radio and watched the news and read Herb Caen every morning and picked up books nobody my age was reading. I remember Sister Gemma standing next to my desk in fourth grade and asking to see the book I was reading. It was a history of the Gestapo. I was nine. I think she called my mom that night.
I was consumed with sports and sports statistics, but most of my influences were outside of sports. I went on a Stephen King binge when I was 12 or 13. That could be why, even as my taste evolved, I tended to veer toward dark novels. The first writer I read with awe was Don Delillo, and End Zone was the first book I read more than once. I worked in the same building as Pete Dexter at the Sacramento Bee, and I marveled at his ability to say a whole bunch without saying much at all. I could go on and on. George Saunders might be the best and most inventive writer in the English language.
Q. Career bucket list?
A. This is tough. I’m happiest when I’m off by myself, reporting a story about people and places nobody knows. I’ve covered most of the major events in sports, and I enjoy the spectacle but don’t really enjoy the process. Everybody’s fighting over the same crumbs. I’m far too American in my sports diet, though, so I would like to one day cover the World Cup or something similarly out of my comfort zone.
(SMG thanks Tim Keown for his cooperation)